Priceless air

The US Supreme Court cast its weight on the side of clean air this week just as a congressional subcommittee was completing action on weakened clean air legislation. From most indications the public is more in line with the court than with a determined majority on the subcommittee. There is reason to hope that when the present bill, H.R. 5252, reaches the House floor it will be challenged and at least partly overtaken by the provisions of a stronger bill, H.R. 5555.

Indeed, on a crucial part of the matter before the court - cost/benefit analysis of safety standards - there has already been a retreat by those in the administration, Congress, and polluting industries who have been seeking a weak revision of the Clean Air Act. They had been trying to have national air quality standards set in accordance with cost/benefit analysis. But they soon began to see that Americans are wary of compromising the protection of public health and environment for the sake of money.

They also saw last year's Supreme Court decision in a case challenging OSHA standards for workplace exposure to cotton dust. The court ruled that the government does not have to base standards on cost/benefit analysis. The majority opinion said that, in passing safety legislation, Congress knew protection would be costly but worth the price: ''Congress viewed the costs of health and safety as a cost of doing business.''

It was in the same vein that this week the court let stand a lower court decision upholding Environmental Protection Agency standards for levels of ozone - produced by automobile and industrial emissions - in the air. These had already been loosened from previous standards. But they were appealed by the oil industry and the city of Houston, partly on grounds that they had not been subjected to cost/benefit analysis.

By in effect rejecting any requirement for such analysis the court made certainty more sure on this issue. Even H.R. 5252, the pending effort to undercut the Clean Air Act, does not go back to the idea of putting a price on protective standards.

Cost/benefit analysis is properly a part of the equation when it comes to determining the means of meeting standards. So are fine-tuning, simplification, and other improvements when it comes to ensuring an effective Clean Air Act for the future. H.R. 5555 goes a long way in this direction, as the House will have an opportunity to confirm when the battle for clean air reaches the floor.

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